Brazil: the moral challenge

Arthur Ituassu
18 April 2007

A major survey of Brazil by the Economist has made the country once more the centrepiece of a great national and international debate (see "Land of promise", 12 April 2007). The theme and the framing of the debate both make sense. Brazil is a big country, an increasingly important player in regional politics and global trade, with a hard-working and friendly population, culturally rich, and blessed with vast natural beauty and resources. So, as Brooke Unger - the author of the Economist's special feature - asks: "Why is Brazil not doing a lot better?"

In 2006, I and my colleague Rodrigo de Almeida (of Iuperj, a well-respected institute of political science here in Rio de Janeiro) posed a very similar question to six people whose professional work obliges them constantly to "think the country". The answers became the core of a book we edited and published: O Brasil tem jeito? (Jorge Zahar, 2006)

The title contains a very popular, very interesting, and very Brazilian word which embeds a meaning relevant both to the debate about Brazil's future and to the country's everyday social predicament - including the frequent eruptions of terrible violence that impact on many of its citizens. The word is jeito.

Arthur Ituassu is professor of international relations at the Pontifícia Universidade Católica, Rio de Janeiro. His website is here

Among Arthur Ituassu's articles on Brazil in openDemocracy:

"Lula and Brazil: new beginning or dead end?" (19 May 2005)

"A big mess in Brazil" (17 June 2005)

"Lula: the dream is over" (18 August 2005)

"Brazil: never the same again" (4 October 2005)

"Violence in Brazil: all are targets, all are guilty" (17 May 2006)

"Brazil at the crossroads"
(15 August 2006)

"The green and yellow phoenix"
(29 September 2006)

Brazil, let's talk"
(4 October 2006)

"Welcome to politics, Brazil"
(1 November 2006)

The title of our book derived from the memorable use of the word by Gustavo Franco, the economics professor and former president of Brazil's central bank who was one of the architects of the real (currency-reform) project which helped Brazil achieve macroeconomic stability after years of hyperinflation. Brazil, he wrote, has something special, which no other country can have more of than us: jeito, a "way". A thing that has jeito is a thing that can be solved. So the title of our book might be translated as: "Is there a way for Brazil?"

The Economist's survey takes a different approach. It is polished and well written, and - though it offers nothing new to Brazilians themselves - presents a clear digest of the current economic and institutional problems. Among them is the absurdly skewed relationship between the cost of Brazil's public authorities and the benefit they provide Brazil's citizens. This mismatch operates at all levels of government - federal, state and municipal - which together account for almost 40% of the country's GDP without guaranteeing even basic health, education, justice or security to millions of citizens.

The difficulties extend to the expensive and corrupt bureaucracy, which blocks individual initiative; the inability of the judicial system (whose buildings in Brasília are the most pharaonic of all) to enforce the law universally and fairly; the routine public inefficiency; and the poor condition of schools in the public sector. All of this is so familiar to Brazilians that it amounts almost to a domestic consensus.

Ask any Brazilian politician what is wrong with the country and they will answer "education". True, a system where underpaid schoolteachers who teach children from poor families in dilapidated, wasteful public schools is a scandal. But the system is wrong in concept: a teacher in this sector earns less than a graduate student in receipt of a state scholarship for a master's degree or a doctorate - and many of the latter can study abroad for all or much of their course and yet receive the same benefits.

A poor - normally black - guy in Brazil cannot even conceive of reaching a level where he can have such an opportunity for himself. How can a country like this not have violence? This is not to justify the outcome, but it certainly explains a lot.

The third consensus

The big question is: why does nothing happen to improve matters?

An obvious answer is that it is far easier to identify a problem than to solve it. But in fact the second half of this equation needs to be more nuanced. For the immediate challenge that Brazil faces is less to solve these issues - that will take a generation - than to build a consensus on how to solve it. Here, a lesson from history is apposite.

Two major consensuses were created in recent Brazilian political history. The first was around democracy, which was essential to end the military regime that had ruled since the 1964 military coup d'etat. This enabled Brazil to return to the path of political parties, free elections, and alternation of power. Today, this consensus is under pressure in Brazil and the region from a range of factors: corruption scandals, popular religious political platforms, and the ideas of plebiscites and popular authority that dominate political discourse in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador (and which have their longstanding Brazilian versions too). At the same time, although any challenge to democracy is problematic, Brazil's more complex institutional environment compared to its Andean or non-secular friends means that its democracy itself is not in danger.

Rodrigo de Almeida writes in openDemocracy:

"Brazil in the world: principle and practice" (19 January 2007)

"Brazil, the United States and ethanol"
(30 March 2007)

The second consensus was around economics and in particular the aforementioned real plan. This originated in the failure of the anti-hyperinflation Plano Cruzado, which had been launched in February 1986 under the leadership of the well-known economist Dilson Funaro (finance minister under the presidency of José Sarney). The problem it faced was that at the time, increases in salaries and public finances varied legally according to the inflation rate; this refuelled the inflationary process and politically institutionalised it in Brazilian society. The real plan brought stability to the economy as a major by-product of this second consensus. Its enduring success means that, again, the current political debate in Brazil over the role of the state in the market creates no threat to economic stability.

The key point is that neither consensus appeared "from nowhere"; each emerged from debate, discussion and dialogue within Brazilian society. In 2005, I heard former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso call attention to a very important matter: politicians must talk to the Brazilian people in such a manner that the people can understand their plans and motives.

In this light, the principal problem today becomes not the lack of consensus in Brazilian society about its problems, but the lack of an agenda to discuss how to create it and what should be on it. How to grow the economy is a false question that misses the far larger (and older) issue of how to address Brazil's rigid social hierarchy, which is embedded in Brazilian institutions and denies equal opportunity to Brazilian citizens.

The effect on Brazil's public life is corrosive: millions are left sitting at home, watching the, in effect, only (and crap) television channel, ingesting pathetic political propaganda in the months before some election as politicians appear before spectators to project their dreams. It is the opposite of the democratic, public conversation that the country needs.

As for the question Rodrigo de Almeida and I posed: for sure, Brazil has jeito. But jeito does not have a positive meaning only. To give a jeitinho, a little jeito, can also mean to commit some corrupt act. Brazilian society and its injustices are a real-world embodiment of a moral debate. For the country as a whole, this is a moral as much as a political challenge.

On 13 April 2007, Hélio José da Silva Ezequiel, black, 25 years old, died when he was on his way home, after visiting his seventh child who had been born in a maternity hospital located where he lives, in the favela of Morro dos Macacos (Monkey's Hill), in Rio de Janeiro. He was mistaken for a drug-dealer by a rival gang that was invading the area. His sister Edna Ezequiel had lost her 13-year-old daughter Alana to a random bullet in the same place, forty-three days before.

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